Cycle Superhighway, London
Cycle Superhighway, London

Imagine a major network of high standard cycling routes in Australia’s cities; something akin to the trunk role of the urban railway system. London’s started building them and it’s time Australian cities borrowed from its experience and built their own networks of Cycle Superhighways.

It might sound like a pretentious name, but Cycle Superhighway suggests something that’s very, very good. London hasn’t got every one right but when done well the idea is a route that’s segregated from traffic, that’s wide, that’s direct, that’s long and continuous, and that’s for the exclusive use of cyclists.

It’s most definitely not the cycling equivalent of a freeway – riders still have to negotiate intersections – but a Cycle Superhighway is more than the hotch-potch of discontinuous lanes, paths, sharrows and nothings we’re accustomed to.

It might, for example, have a dedicated bridge over a waterway or the occasional grade separation where it crosses very busy or very wide roads. Land might need to be acquired to ensure a route is continuous, traffic signals installed, or traffic re-routed.

A Cycle Superhighway network is superficially like the existing system of bicycle trails commonly found along waterways and motorways in Australian cities. They’re both segregated from traffic and they’re both continuous over long distances.

The difference is bicycle trails are usually narrow, shared with pedestrians, and those that follow meandering rivers and creeks (most of them) are necessarily indirect. They were designed primarily for recreation rather than for commuting.

A Cycle Superhighway, on the other hand, is designed for transport i.e. for getting places. It must be direct so while it might have short sections in parks or along waterways, it necessarily mostly uses existing road space reassigned for the exclusive use of cyclists.

The available evidence strongly suggests that offering prospective cyclists a safe, continuous route from close to home to close to work or education will significantly increase the mode share of cycling in the inner and middle ring suburbs of Australian cities (see Do more bikeways mean more bicycle commuting?). The high sense of subjective safety associated with continuous segregated paths is a key reason why cycling is so popular in places like Amsterdam.

Apart from safety, Cycle Superhighways have another advantage; they’re highly visible and, like railways, tram lines and motorways, they’re legible. That means they’d be good at marketing cycling to prospective users. It also means they’d be attractive to politicians who want to be associated with high-profile projects.

They’d be good in terms of cycling advocacy too. At present, few have a clear picture of what makes up the inner and middle suburban bicycle network in their city. Setting a network of Cycling Superhighways as the key objective would crystallise the aspirations of cycling promotion and provide a tangible way of measuring the progress of governments.

Cycle Superhighways are costly relative to painting bicycle lanes on roads but very low cost compared to building and operating roads and rail. The Benefit-Cost Ratio would also be much higher.

In Europe the cost runs to between €300,000/km for a wide dedicated cycle track and €800,000/km when complex civil engineering structures are needed. I think we should assume they’d cost more here given the high costs of building infrastructure in Australia. But they’d still be a financial and political bargain.

Initial funding of (say) $100 million over four years could achieve a lot in terms of building a Cycle Superhighway network in a city like Melbourne (London is spending £100 million per year over ten years). As I’ve noted before, cycling already has a higher mode share in the inner suburbs of Melbourne than trams (see How important is cycling in Australian cities?).

The Victorian Government is incorporating bicycle paths in some major new road and rail transport projects, but its 2016-17 budget provides no funding for new bicycle works. That’s a pity because ad hoc works are fortuitous, but they aren’t strategic; they’re not part of a prioritised plan aimed at maximising the take-up of utility cycling.

I’m loath to criticise governments for not funding everything, but I think there’s a good case for the Andrews Government to start planning a major network of Cycling Superhighways in inner suburban Melbourne with a view to committing funding in the current term.

A lot of planning would be required because the biggest difficulty would be the politics of reassigning road space to cyclists. It’s likely some property acquisition would be necessary to link routes and some works would in all probability traverse environmentally sensitive areas like parks and creeks.

Like his predecessor, the new Mayor is also promoting Quietways. This form of infrastructure might have sections in parks or along waterways, but Quietways are mostly low-traffic, low-speed streets where cars and bicycles share the same roadspace.

Traffic management works and signage make it clear cyclists have priority. Quietways provide a means for cyclists to get to and from trunk routes with a high sense of subjective safety and without the political problem of limiting residents use of cars or access to on-street parking.

We could invent new names if we want. Quietways have other names elsewhere e.g. Green Streets, Bicycle Streets, Bicycle Boulevards. Cycle Superhighways could be called Cycleways, Commuter Routes, or whatever; it would make sense to do some research to see what’s most convincing for winning the support of motorists and prospective cyclists. Personally, I think Cycle Superhighways would be hard to beat.

Perhaps someone will be motivated enough to draw up a “fantasy cycle superhighway” map for one or more Australian cities. I expect Melbourne and Canberra are the most promising candidates because they have the highest cycling mode share for the journey to work.

Cycle Superhighway2